by Michael Bowen

You hear it all the time, and with each passing year, it seems, the chorus only gets louder: Everything sounds the same. While only the most eclectic outsider fringe music ever truly deserves the tag "original sound," there are, thank Zeus, innovators out there so blissfully unaware of (or maybe just unconcerned about) current popular music trends that their additions to our collective consciousness can't help but stand out as unique.

All-instrumental trio Drums & amp; Tuba have built up a devoted and diverse following across this great land of ours by humping it over the road less traveled, by routinely challenging rock conventions and sacred cows with their funk/jazz rhythms, twinkling atmospherics and left-field melodies. It's a strange pursuit, this melding of early century instrumentation with ultra-modern electronica filtered through a wholly subversive mentality. But I doubt this Austin, TX-spawned, currently NYC-based combo would be where they are today if they had to do it any other way. Catch them if you can at Mootsy's this Saturday, with astounding one man band, That1guy.

"What makes this fun," explains D & amp;T co-founder Brian Wolff, "is that we're playing the kind of music we want to play; we don't really even think about what people want to hear. And we've been able to pull it off. It's pretty much why we're doing what we're doing. It's a lot of work, and if you're not totally into it, then it's not really worth it."

The Drums & amp; Tuba co-conspirators are Neal McKeeby on guitar, Tony Nozero on drums and Wolff on (that's right) tuba. A tuba player? Wasn't it only yesterday that we were making fun of those guys in high school band? How the heck did tuba transcend its stigma as a nerd-only instrument to become an implement of the avant garde?

"I sort of classify tuba as the youngest of all the orchestral instruments," says Wolff. "So people haven't quite caught up to what it can do. It's really a lot more versatile than people give it credit for. When we first started [back in 1995], I had just bought a tuba and was just kind of into the idea of it. The drummer, Tony, and I were working a job together and I said, 'Man, let's get together and play.' And we did that -- while I was basically learning to play the thing."

But learn he did, and six months into their initial formation, Drums & amp; Tuba added guitarist McKeeby to help fill out the group's developing sound. The band currently has five albums to its credit, the two most recent being last year's Vinyl Killer and the brand new in '02, Mostly Ape (both on Ani DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records).

On both albums, the drum kit dominates the soundfield. The tuba often lays down a rhythm line, but it can also function as a melodic instrument. Guitar serves both functions as well, while the influx of synthesizer adds ambient, often otherworldly textures to the mix. Wolff says the electronic techniques (samplers, delays, etc.) used in the studio to produce Drums & amp; Tuba's dense aural tapestry are replicated onstage.

"There are very few overdubs on the albums. Most of it is live. Each instrument is miked, so I'll loop it around as we're playing and then we'll sort of build layers. I also put the tuba through a bunch of guitar pedals and stuff. The only real difference in the studio is that we'll spend a little more time making sure that the samples are really good."

Though improvisation plays a large role in conceiving the various musical components of a song, Wolff says by the time the guys get into the studio, the fat has been trimmed significantly -- thus Drums & amp; Tuba avoids the perils of overindulgence by keeping compositions compact, ever shifting and constantly intriguing.

"The thing that we tried to do for the new album is tighten everything up. Vinyl Killer is cool, but the songs meander a little bit. On Mostly Ape we tried to get the songs more concise. It's a little more rock."

More rock? As opposed to the less rock/more jazz vibe of the previous record? With such a fluid grasp of so many musical styles, it's not surprising that Wolff and his bandmates chafe at the question everyone always wants to have answered: "Um... so, what do you guys sound like?"

"Man, I don't know," he laughs in frustration. "We get a lot of different reactions. I guess my attitude is whatever people hear in it, that's what we are.

"Sometimes I'm sort of surprised that people are into our music," Wolff confesses. "Because it's not what people are used to listening to. But I get the impression that everybody out there is a lot more desperate for things that they haven't heard before than the music industry gives them credit for. On this tour [with solo artist, That1guy], I've had the opportunity to sort of stand in the crowd while he's playing and get the reaction. It's been a real eye-opening experience. People get pumped up because they've never seen anything like it before. We just played at this big Mormon barbecue gathering thing in Salt Lake, and we all thought they'd think it was weird music -- you know, what are we doing here? But after we played, we had all these old Mormon people buying our CDs. They were really excited. The industry just assumes everyone wants to hear the same thing over and over again."

Hey. Screw the industry. If you can get the Mormons on your side, you've got it made.

"Yeah, man," Wolff agrees. "It's all about the Mormons."

Spirit of Santa Fe -- Unlike those crazy tuba guys, the Dolly Ranchers are fairly genre-specific. They play real country music with nary a hint of irony and with a shameless love for the classics: old-time mountain music, bluegrass, country ballads and Western swing. Comprised of Sarah-Jane Moody (vox, harmonica, guitar), Amy Bertucci (vox and originally from Spokane), Maria Fabulosa (bass) and Marisa Anderson (guitar, banjo), this Santa Fe, N.M., quartet weaves simple and honest campfire songs for the next millennium. They perform at the Shop on Tuesday night.

Waltzes, slow melancholy ballads and twangy modern honky tonk round out Escape Artist, the band's latest baker's dozen on their own label, Chaos Kitchen. Moody and Bertucci's vocals belie an emotional investment that infuses the group's music with a depth and authenticity that, despite its rough-around-the-edges execution, frequently results in moments of clear-blue transcendence. Great melodies and winning vocal harmonies conspire to create a personal document of travel, adventure, hardship, imperfect love and other unexpected delights. Though the band bills itself as "alt-country" (specifically, as a cross between Patti Smith and Freakwater), this album is more pedal-to- the-metal country than anything Nashville has offered recently. That's a compliment -- and probably the reason modern real country acts such as the Dolly Ranchers try to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the purveyors of contemporary country schlock.

The Dolly Ranchers sure aren't going to change the world with their quiet, reflective tunes. But they certainly have the potential to make it a bit more livable.

Cashing a Rain Check -- Love 'em or hate 'em, Creed, led by the ever-sullen and ponderous Scott Stapp, is back to reclaim its territory as one of the music industry's top grossing acts with a show at the Spokane Arena Monday night. Frontman Stapp is back in the saddle after recovering from a serious automobile accident last April that forced the band to cancel the second North American leg of its "Weathered Tour" -- including (as you may or may not recall), a May 15 gig in Spokane. Now that Stapp has healed sufficiently and as the sales of Weathered continue to climb into the multi-platinum stratosphere, Creed is out there once again pummeling the faithful with its calculated hard rock anthems and five-Kleenex power ballads.

Wheatland Bank Free Horse & Carriage Rides @ Riverfront Park

Fridays, 4-8 p.m. Continues through June 21
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Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.